The entrance to the headquarters of KBC bank in Brussels was taken by environmental activists Thursday concerned about the financial and climatic risks of coal investments in the Czech Republic. Hours later, the bank surprised the activists by announcing an end to all new coal investments.

Activists from Greenpeace climbed the entrance gate of KBC bank in Brussels during the early hours of Thursday and rolled out a banner to ask visitors to choose either a ‘coal’ or a ‘renewables’ entrance.

Greenpeace argues that while the two other big banks in Belgium stopped coal investments, KBC ran behind in the divestment drive. The organisation pointed to both the climate and financial risks of coal investments.

A number of Czechs also descended on Brussels, to talk in KBC’s annual shareholder meeting about the destruction of their village by a massive open pit coal mine – paid for with KBC money.

Clean air

The European Beyond Coal coalition of NGOs may state with confidence that Europe will be coal-free by 2030 – in the Czech Republic coal is still king.

The heating of 40 percent of the Czechs comes from coal-fired power plants. In order to supply them with coal, mining in the North of the Czech Republic already annihilated 82 villages, says Vladimir Burt, the mayor of Horni Jiretin. KBC finances this through its banking arm in the Czech Republic: CSOB. CSOB invested hundreds of millions to the open coal mines.

Jan Rovensky is a member of the environmental council in neighboring Litvinov. His main worry now is that “when their plans succeed we will be surrounded and shut off from the outside world by mines on one side and the mountainous border behind us”.

Vladimir gives the historical context of their struggle: “The Soviets continued the rapid expansion of the mines during the Nazi occupation. From the sixties onwards, entire villages were swallowed whole.

“The resistance against the open mine and against the Soviet regime melted together. It is in our region that the 1989 resistance wave that brought about the end of the Soviet era began, with a call for clean air.”

Immediately and positively

Today, it is private investors and the banks that finance the mines that Vladimir and Jan are up against. The mines have also recently started to received support from abroad.

Horni Jiretin grew into an international meeting place and resistance hub, under the slogan “We are the limits”. Last year, people from all over Europe came together here to occupy the mine for a day and thus paralyze production.

Jan Rovensky thinks that they are now really at a turning point: “If they do not expand in the five years that their license still remains, its game over for Czech Coal. The Czech government recently allowed a limited expansion of one mine, allowing the massive 150 meters long and 60 meters high digging machine to come as close as 300 meters from the houses of Litvinov. But Czech Coal looks at CSOB for money and CSOB looks at KBC for approval.”

The good news is that KBC reacted immediately and positively to the Greenpeace ‘hijack’ of their shareholder meeting. It is likely they had seen the storm brewing on the horizon – as the demand to divest from all coal investments is not new.

Beginning of the end

KBC suddenly indicated that it had already decided not to allow new financing of coal-fired power plants and coal mines from June 2018, but was planning to announce that later.

The bank still makes one exception for existing coal-fired plants for centrally controlled heating. According to KBC, that’s a question of not suddenly leaving 40 percent of Czech people out in the cold.

By denouncing all new investments in coal mining and coal power in the Czech Republic, the bank comes a major step closer to a statement that Thomas Leysen, the chairman of the executive board of KBC, already did in 2015: “Coal has to go”.

The delegation from the Czech Republic who fielded questions during the shareholder meeting will return home with a huge sigh of relief.

KBC is by far the main player for financing the energy sector in the Czech Republic and today’s decision is likely to mark the beginning of the end of decades of struggle to stop the machines that ate a whole region.

For more details, visit the Atlas of Environmental Justice.